In the most elegant part of the polished city of Stockholm, in the city’s financial center, in a luxurious mall called Sturegallerian, there’s a dark, slightly dusty place where you get no music, no shiny white surfaces, no two-for-one-deals, no espresso machine. It’s a bookstore and it’s called Hedengrens.
When you enter Hedengrens on street level, you are greeted by hanging green glass lamps, a wooden counter, Swedish paperbacks, an interesting selection of new titles, and some beautiful stationary. In this highly subversive underground sanctuary, things are allowed to go slowly, so there might be a little line because someone is getting their books gift-wrapped. You already feel happy, but it’s when you walk down the stairs that you start to sense true excitement. You’re entering a vault of World Literature. You get the same feeling as in a house of worship or at an airport, that this place is connected to the bigger world, that it’s an in-between, transcendent space.
At Hedengrens, I mostly visit the overwhelmingly rich selection of English titles, the French shelves, and the Swedish fiction and poetry sections. But the mere presence of the German, Italian, Spanish, and Scandinavian ones, even, let’s say, the Natural Science section, is somehow reassuring. I find it humbling to be surrounded by some sixty thousand titles, many of them in foreign languages. I’m particularly devoted to Canadian Literature. When, for example, I wanted to read something by Margaret Laurence, I was able to find her entire bibliography neatly lined up on the shelf.
Translators and editors come here to discover books, and the diversity is amplified by the fact that self-publishers and small presses are welcome. Stores keep popping up but this Stockholm classic has been around since 1897, and almost all of its staff has been here since the twentieth century. These veterans can tell you about times when there was still smoking in the French corner, or when John Irving did a reading in Bermuda shorts. Their invaluable mental catalogues include titles that have been out of print for decades. This is a place where you can discuss literature. This place has a memory. This place has a personality, an identity.
Hedengrens is a real bookstore and thus it has moods, and its own ways of doing things. It stands out not only in the neighborhood but also among the booksellers. There’s no pretending that life is a smooth business. This bookstore reflects the rather messy, imperfect, and complex nature of our world and existence. That’s one of the reasons why I feel at home here. This is not a place exclusively for the new and the few, it’s not overly commercial or literary highbrow or hip, but genuine and headstrong, a bit uncomfortable and tricky, unclear at times, confusing, and rebellious. Independent, yes, and therefore free to display what it wishes, the way it wishes. This bookstore has integrity; I feel confident that these really are the staff recommendations, and not something they have been told to sell. I can spend hours browsing without feeling haunted by the desperate tentacles of commerce.
Reality contains oddities, and the barking you sometimes hear in the cellar could be considered one of those. No, those aren’t ghosts, those are the three backstage dogs. Yes, some of my colleagues—Ivar, Gus, and Norton—have four legs and like to be petted. Did I say “my colleagues”? Yes, in addition to being a literary translator, for almost seven years I’ve been a proud part-time member of the Hedengrens crew.
Translating is reading in its most concentrated form, so it’s refreshing to step out of my narrowly focused world of word work and connect with other readers as a bookseller. Translators work behind the scenes, preparing works of art for their lives in the real world,and bookstores are often the first homes for these translations once they are published. I experience both pleasure and pride at being around the books that my translator colleagues and I have worked so hard to create.
While I am a bit of a globe-trotting vagabond, Hedengrens, like my mother’s house, is a place I always come back to. And when I do, the most common comment I get from customers is: “This really is a real bookstore.” I can only agree. The day the real bookstores disappear we will have no more real cities.